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Humanitarian Crisis Grows on Libya-Tunisia Border

Stranded Egyptians who have fled Libya protest because of insufficient food, water and shelter, in a camp on March 1, 2010 in Ras Jdir, close to the border between Tunisia and Egypt. (Carlos Spottorno/Getty Images)

Tens of thousands of people desperate to escape west Libya are pouring to the border crossing with Tunisia and creating a humanitarian emergency, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees said Tuesday.

Between 70,000 and 75,000 people have fled Libya for Tunisia in the weeks since the violent clashes between Moammar Gadhafi’s forces and anti-government fighters began, and UNHCR reports more than 10,000 people have been stranded at the border crossing.

“There is a sea of people [at the border], an enormous need and considerable frustration from the local community,” said UNHCR spokesperson Sybella Wilkes, relaying information from a “chaotic” call with her team at the Tunisia border entry point. “The area is absolutely saturated and there is no end in sight.”

The majority of people leaving the country are Egyptian, she said. Many are migrant workers who were no longer receiving pay, and some said they felt they should leave instead of waiting for trouble.

“We are surprised we haven’t seen more Libyans given the level of violence certainly out of the west,” she said. “We are wondering what is preventing Libyans from fleeing…we would normally see women, children, vulnerables, even if the men stay behind.”

A temporary camp has been set up to accommodate people stranded at the border. Conditions are bitterly cold when temperatures drop at night, so shelter has become the first priority. Food and water supplies have held up for the moment.

“On the border itself is a no-man’s land,” said Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies who is in Tunisia. “What needs to be done most urgently is for the air and sea bridge to be set up so people can be taken to the airport and out to the port and mainly back to Egypt.”

IFRC spokesperson Katherine Roux spoke with Margaret Warner late Tuesday at the border:


The Red Crescent volunteers have had to treat some injuries from the crush of people trying to push through the narrow border crossing, but have not seen gunshot wounds or other severe injuries, Lowry said.

“At any one time, there are 2,000 crushed tightly against a border gate, they are getting through very slowly,” he said. “It’s like going to a rock concert, about 500 meters deep.”

A Médecins Sans Frontières team of 15 has been held up at the same crossing and denied entry into Libya because they don’t have visas.

MSF Emergency Coordinator Rosa Crestani said from Brussels there is little information available about the medical situation in western Libya, where fighting continues and Gadhafi’s forces have been trying to reclaim the city of Zawiya. There are unconfirmed reports that those wounded in the fighting are not receiving medical care, and that injured people are being denied entrance to hospitals because access is now being controlled.

The team will remain at the border ready to deploy into Libya whenever possible, Crestani said. MSF also has a team in Benghazi aiding doctors there with treatment for 1,800 injured from fighting that occurred from Feb. 17 through 21.

“The situation is quite tense in the area but in other ways it is under control, the team is safe there for the moment,” Crestani said. “There are no new arrivals of wounded at the moment.”

But refugees and foreign nationals within Libya are telling UNHCR that they feel they are in serious danger. Reports that Gadhafi is hiring African mercenaries to fight anti-government forces are making the situation precarious for the many African refugees and migrants in the country.

“It’s a fact that to be an African on the street in Libya is just extremely dangerous at this time,” said Wilkes.”They are telling us that they are feeling hunted, trapped, feeling that there is a lot of suspicion about them and their activities.”

Three Eritreans in contact with the agency said they were attacked when Libyans looted the business they work for. They were badly injured, and went into hiding in a hole in the ground, trying to survive off grass. Two of the men eventually went out to look for help and were killed in the streets, Wilkes said.

Back at the border, Red Crescent volunteers are bracing for what might come next.

“The worry is that something will happen within Libya and even larger numbers of people will rush to the border trying to get through,” said Lowry. “There has been no let up …if anything, it’s increasing.”

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